Film review: The Immigrant (2013), directed by James Gray
tl;dr: Early 1920s New York, tiny bit of opera and an amazing Cotillard. What more do you need?
It’s 1921 and Polish sisters Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Magda Cybulska (Angela Sarafyan) arrive at Ellis Island, New York, in search of a better life. Coughing Magda is taken away into quarantine and Ewa is told that the address for her aunt (Maja Wampuszyc) and uncle (Ilia Volok), who would vouch for them, doesn’t exist, and because of some of her alleged “illicit behaviour” on the boat she’s set to be deported on the next ship back to Europe.
Cue the affluent Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), pretending to be from the Traveler’s Aid Society, who bribes the guards into letting her go, and promises to help Ewa get her sister out. The catch? Getting Magda out will cost money, but it’s okay, Ewa only has to come work for him – as a scantily clad dancer in a seedy theatre. The girls are only really dancing as an advertisement for would-be clients in the audience, but what do you do when you’re desperate for cash and have nowhere else to go?
Without giving away too much of the plot Ewa also meets Emil (Jeremy Renner), a.k.a. Orlando the Magician, whose interest in her is somewhat more above board than his brother Bruno’s …
(Dagmara Dominczyk is also in this film, but I can’t actually remember who “Belva” was specifically, aside from one of the other dancers.)
Honestly, the reason this film ended up on my radar is because not only is it a film set in New York in 1921, it also has Enrico Caruso making a (very brief) appearance and he’s played by the magnificent operatic tenor Joseph Calleja. The Caruso appearance on Ellis Island isn’t historically accurate by any means, but if it means Caruso is in the film played by my favourite opera singer, I’ll take it!
What I loved about this film, aside from Cotillard being ever amazing (she learned how to speak Polish convincingly in two months) and Phoenix being ever creepy-but-also-excellent, is that it shows the process of arriving at Ellis Island and everything around that. How hopeful must all those millions of people have been who arrived on those shores? And how devastated when they were turned away? The New York locations are wonderful (Prospect Park!! I might have to watch it again now that I know that’s where parts of it were filmed) and that it’s set in 1921 is a further bonus. Yes please.
So, essentially, if what you’re currently really into happens to be New York in the early 1920s and/or you find immigrant stories compelling in general, then you might like The Immigrant as much as I did. If not, then it’s not a happy feelgood sort of story, and the would-be love triangle is a bit weird, but it’s still a really well made film. Ewa is tenacious and tries to do her best with the shitty cards she’s been dealt and I admire her for it – and again, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Marion Cotillard in a film and simply gone “she’s okay I guess”. She’s nothing short of fantastic every single time, even if the film she’s in isn’t. Not this one, though, I really liked it. It’s a bit grim and gritty, but those were the days. And it has a tiny bit of opera in it.
4 out of 5 Statues of Liberty.